On Familiar Political Turf, Alexander Hits The Campaign Trail

By Julie A. Miller — September 30, 1992 9 min read
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He also differs from Mr. Bennett in that Mr. Bennett’s remarks usually went far afield to such topics as AIDS and the war then raging in Nicaragua; Mr. Alexander largely confines himself to education topics.

It is 11 A.M. on a weekday, and, except for a knot of reporters and television cameramen stationed by a small voter-registration table, the Arden Fair shopping mall here is quiet.

Neither the local reporters nor the Bush-Quayle campaign workers manning the table recognize the man they are waiting to meet until the two aides accompanying U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander steer him to the table.

He shakes hands and exchanges pleasantries with the volunteers before sitting down to address the task at hand: helping fill out several voter cards as the shutters click and videotape rolls.

Several of the registrants are college students, and one acknowledges that the Bush campaign has asked him to play the role. Mr. Alexander chuckles sympathetically as the students reflect on the difficulties of being a Republican on a college campus.

As the Secretary gets up to leave, the reporters thrust microphones under his nose and lob questions about educational choice and the Presidential campaign. In response, Mr. Alexander delivers the sound bite that he will repeat over and over during two days of campaign appearances on Sept. 16 and 17.

“Look at the programs of the two candidates,’' Mr. Alexander says. “President Bush is for lower taxes, less regulation, limiting excessive litigation in this country, a radical agenda for changing the schools of the nation.’'

“On all these issues, he is opposed by the interest groups that his opponent, Bill Clinton, will line up with,’' he says. “Governor Clinton stands for higher taxes, more regulation, limited changes in schools. That’s not the way to get economic growth in California.’'

“Bill Clinton showed us what kind of education President he would be when he went out to the teachers’ unions and told them what they want to hear,’' Mr. Alexander says. “President Bush is the one who tells us all what we need to hear.’'

As he has been in the past and as he will likely be several times again before the Nov. 3 election, Lamar Alexander is on the political stump.

Retail Politics

It is a long way from Cabinet meetings in Washington, America 2000 news conferences, and Rose Garden ceremonies at the White House, but Mr. Alexander is an old hand at the kind of retail politics he practiced at the Sacramento shopping mall earlier this month.

“I’ve done a lot worse,’' he said on the way out. “I wasn’t always Secretary of Education, you know.’'

Mr. Alexander’s political skills--honed in three statewide campaigns and during two terms as Governor of Tennessee--were evident as he set out on the campaign trail for President Bush this month.

He was patient with the local media and generous with the handshakes and small talk, slipping effortlessly into a folksy, self-deprecating style that serves him especially well in informal settings.

At several of the California events, Mr. Alexander began by quoting a favorite Australian proverb on the indignity of being a former official: “Rooster today, feather duster tomorrow.’'

“I was a feather duster for several years,’' he said. “People stared at me without remembering why they were staring. They thought I was some kind of wide receiver or a talk-show host.’'

“He’s so humble and down-to-earth; I like that,’' said Sherri Anderson, a Republican candidate for a municipal office who met Mr. Alexander at the opening of the Alameda County Republican headquarters in Pleasanton.

“I can spot a man who wants to clean house a mile away,’' he said as Bill Baker, a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, walked in.

When he spoke in Sacramento to members of Active 20/30, a community-service organization for young professionals, Mr. Alexander quickly assessed that a light tone would be helpful. The group’s president, Jud Boizs, described the organization as “a transition between Animal House and the Rotary Club,’' and added a joke about “incontinent’’ Rotarians who “struggle to keep their hearing aids out of the iced tea.’' Another member introduced the Secretary by making fun of his name.

“I’m not a Rotarian, though I’m old enough and nearly incontinent enough to be one,’' Mr. Alexander told the group after taking the podium.

“I’ll take questions or comments, or, if you just want to throw things at me, I’m prepared to take that for a while,’' he said, “and then I’ll throw them back.’'

Changing the Subject

In addition to employing a more informal style than he typically sports in Washington, Mr. Alexander changes his emphasis for the campaign hustings.

The Secretary spends a great deal of time on the road. But the vast majority of his appearances are to promote local efforts connected with his America 2000 school-improvement strategy, and more recently to bestow “break the mold’’ awards on schools employing what he considers to be promising innovations.

When he speaks at these events, he emphasizes the community-action aspect of America 2000 and the bipartisan nature of the local efforts. At an America 2000 workshop in San Francisco at the beginning of his campaign swing in northern California, for example, Mr. Alexander never mentioned the Bush Administration’s controversial proposal that would allow parents to use federal funds to help send their children to private schools.

Asked whether America 2000 will continue if Mr. Bush is not re-elected, Mr. Alexander offered a good-natured reply.

“If the President is re-elected, America 2000 will succeed more rapidly,’' he said. “But the President himself would want me to say this is a bipartisan effort.’'

At the campaign events, not surprisingly, Mr. Alexander did not speak of bipartisan efforts.

Instead, he talked at length about choice and the Bush voucher plan, and contended that the President’s education program is a good reason to re-elect him.

“While he’s been spreading democracy around the world, he’s also been working quietly to change our schools,’' Mr. Alexander said.

Political Connections

Local campaign officials thought up the shopping-mall visit, while Vic Romero, the co-chairman of the Bush campaign in Alameda County, said he “pestered’’ state Republican officials to “obtain somebody significant’’ for the grand opening of the G.O.P. headquarters in Pleasanton.

The other two events on the Sept. 16-17 schedule--the appearance before the Active 20/30 club and a stop at a San Jose technology firm--were less overtly political, though they were arranged through the Bush campaign and are considered campaign events for accounting purposes.

Kevin Teasley, the vice chairman of ExCel, an organization created to support a California initiative on school choice that is to appear on the June 1994 ballot, said he set up the San Jose appearance to call attention to the choice issue. Noting that he had called both the Secretary’s office as well as the Bush campaign in making arrangements for the trip, Mr. Teasley said he was not aware that the event was an official campaign stop.

“There are various avenues to get your way with people,’' he said.

The final event of the trip, the speech to the Active 20/30 club, was arranged when an employee of the Bush campaign got in touch with a friend who is a member of the Sacramento organization.

“I guess they thought that since we focus on children’s charities, we would be receptive to a message on education,’' Clay Christiansen of the 20/30 club said.

Mr. Christiansen and the club president, Mr. Boizs, stressed that the group is nonpartisan. For that reason, Mr. Boizs insisted that campaign workers remove a Bush-Quayle banner from behind the podium and replace it with a club banner. They reluctantly agreed, and attached a smaller Bush-Quayle sign to the banner so it would show up in any pictures of the Secretary that might appear on the evening news or in the next day’s newspapers.

In the Sacramento and San Jose speeches, Mr. Alexander concentrated on the choice issue. Stressing that schools must experiment with innovations to prepare students for the 21st century, the Secretary argued that such diversity would make it “inevitable’’ that parents be allowed to choose among schools.

How Effective?

Audience members reviewed Mr. Alexander favorably at each stop. But interviews indicated that the Administration’s education agenda is not a major factor in determining voters’ allegiance, even among party activists.

Nobody interviewed at any of Mr. Alexander’s events--including several present and former school board members in attendance in Pleasanton--knew anything about America 2000.

The Californians were more familiar with the choice issue, though many noted that the interest could largely be attributed to the upcoming vote on the state initiative.

In any event, reaction to the Administration’s voucher proposal was mixed.

In San Jose, where most of the audience consisted of educators, students, and parents connected with local religious schools, Mr. Alexander was largely preaching to the converted.

But 20/30 members were divided. Some thought vouchers would improve schools through competition; others expressed fears that unfettered choice would undermine the public schools.

Even some of the Republican activists in Pleasanton expressed reservations about the plan.

Chuck DeWitt, a member of the Fremont school board, said he fears a choice program would jeopardize state and local support for a restructuring effort under way in his district.

“Although I could see vouchers working in the long run,’' he said, “in the short run I think it would take a lot away from the public schools.’'

A Different Approach

While audience members indicated that they were favorably impressed with Mr. Alexander, he did not receive the kind of enthusiastic response that former Secretary William J. Bennett regularly drew from partisan audiences.

“He doesn’t push the hot buttons quite as diligently,’' said a party official in Pleasanton, who asked that he not be quoted by name.

Mr. Bennett, who served as Secretary under President Reagan from 1985 to 1988, roused the G.O.P. faithful with such issues as values education and school prayer, and he often launched vitriolic attacks on the education establishment.

In 1988, he also aimed pointed verbal assaults at Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for President that year. He was a leader of the effort to portray Mr. Dukakis as unpatriotic for refusing to sign legislation requiring teachers to lead their students in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Mr. Alexander does attack Mr. Clinton by charging that he is indebted to the education establishment, particularly the teachers’ unions. But his tone is unfailingly polite, and he does not appear comfortable in an attack posture.

“I would always prefer to be positive,’' Mr. Alexander said in California.

He also differs from Mr. Bennett in that Mr. Bennett’s remarks usually went far afield to such topics as AIDS and the war then raging in Nicaragua; Mr. Alexander largely confines himself to education topics.

Finally, while Mr. Alexander has made relatively few political appearances, all of them in a campaign context, Mr. Bennett made frequent appearances at Republican fund-raisers throughout his tenure, making a practice of mixing official and political travel.

Mr. Alexander does, however, appear more politically inclined--and more popular with G.O.P. audiences--than his other predecessors.

Terrel H. Bell, President Reagan’s first Education Secretary, says he made very few political appearances as such, although he toured with Mr. Reagan during the 1984 campaign to promote A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report credited with launching the current school-improvement movement.

Lauro F. Cavazos, Mr. Alexander’s immediate predecessor, stumped for Mr. Bush extensively in his home state of Texas after his appointment in September 1988, but was in little demand as a speaker after that.

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